My short story “Sunshine” was published online by Cosmos on 5 January 2016. (And with a wonderful illustration, no less!) You can read it here.
It deals with hermetically-sealed hospital demolitions in a world where antibiotic-resistant bacteria have gone out of control too many times to count, and is set in South Korea. “Sunshine” was inspired by two things:
- Peter Watts’ brush with flesh-eating bacteria (link very NSFW, and also NSFYSC (Not Safe For Your Stomach Contents))
- the M.E.R.S. outbreak in Korea in 2015.
The latter was the bigger inspiration, obviously. It was pretty terrifying for my wife and I (since she was pregnant at the time, and MERS is dangerous for an unborn child), and the South Korean government’s autocratic-paternalistic, terribly disorganized approach to handling the crisis just made things worse:
During the recent outbreak of Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) in South Korea, the nation’s government was heavily criticized for its response. In a nation still smarting from the inefficient response to the Sewol ferry disaster about a year ago, mismanagement of the outbreak by hospitals and by the Ministry of Health and Welfare frustrated citizens, contradicting articles that state “South Korea is handling this well.”
The withholding of basic information, such as the names of the hospitals suspected of carrying MERS patients, and only exposé of MERS deaths through news outlets escalated anxiety. Not knowing the scope of the threat, entities outside of the government and hospitals reacted on a large scale, from closing schools–1,300 schools initially closed–to selling out of masks.
After 14 days of the outbreak, the nation was shocked to find out that the epicenter of the outbreak was none other than Samsung Medical Center (SMC). Often regarded as the best hospital in the nation, SMC had accumulated a trustworthy reputation, yet it was pressured to issue a public apology and temporarily closed its doors. More than half of the total MERS cases were traced to SMC.
That said, hospital-acquired infections seem, to me, to be much more common in North America than other here… for now. That said, I’ve seen behind the curtain of the medical system here and while some things about it are great, some things are pretty scary.
Anyway, for decades now already, we’ve been aware that increases in the rate of hospital-acquired infections can result from poor precautions during construction and demolition work within a hospital. (Here’s a paper dating back to 1998, and even then it wasn’t exactly cutting-edge news.) I can’t help but imagine a world where further government mismanagement of public health and and epidemics might lead us o a world where hospital administrators eventually decide it’s cheaper, easier, and safer to tear down the old hospitals and construct new ones. And of course, they wouldn’t bother with hermetically sealing the demolition site (or be forced to do so) until someone conclusively showed a link between the demolitions and the ensuing outbreaks.
What else? Ah, there’s this line:
“When I was a kid? Before the ’88 Olympics, my lunch was rice and kimchi. After the Olympics? Rice and kimchi and sausage!”
That’s almost verbatim what someone told me about his own childhood, back when I was working my first teaching job in Korea. Despite the 2002 World Cup—cohosted by South Korea and Japan—having had nothing like that effect, the idea persists that major sporting events categorically enrich the country… even despite clear evidence that this does not necessarily follow. (Like, say, how the stadia constructed for the Japanese part of the 2002 World Cup ended up being a net loss for the communities where they were built).
The hospital in the story is based on a real hospital, too: those who know the geography of the area can guess which one. Well, it’s kind of based on that hospital: it’s actually a composite. The (wonderful) rabbits in the outdoor area are from a different hospital (one in Bucheon, associated with the university where I used to work), and the amniocentesis scene was set in a room based on one in a small OB/GYN clinic in Jochiwon, South Korea. Of the three, only the OB/GYN clinic was sub-par: a week after my wife had her amniocentesis, we saw a couple being allowed to carry a drooling, hair-shedding lap dog into the consultation room adjoining the space where amniocentesis gets carried out, shuddered, and found a new OB/GYN clinic. (And for the record, Mir
Oh, one more thing. The name Haetbit is an old Korean girl’s name that means the same thing as the title. It was the name of a student of mine many years ago, and became one of my favorite Korean names; in fact, it was at the top of our list for our baby, until we found out we were expecting a boy. (It was the name of a kid I met once while teaching a winter English camp here in Korea.) And yes, it means “Sunshine.”
- “Sunshine” is among the shortest stories I’ve ever sold. Not the shortest, but in the top five.
- Sung-Hwan was the name of the bassist in the band I played with, right after I first moved to South Korea. He, happily, is alive and well… as far as I know, anyway.
- The phrase on the front of the front of the hazmat suit in the illustration means, “Research.”
- Mi-hwa’s name means, “Beautiful Flower.” It’s not a common name, but neither is it unheard of.
- The line, “It didn’t hurt at all. It’s amazing!” is precisely what my wife said after her experience of amniocentesis.